Reading of ‘Harvey’ at Williams Bookstore delivers laughs

Amid the whirring of the coffee roasters at Tunnel City Coffee in the Williams Bookstore, 12 student and faculty actors from the Theatre Department met last Thursday evening to read aloud the comedic play Harvey. Part of the department’s 2017-18 play reading series and presented by the Theatre Department Season Planning Committee, Thursday night’s offering was Mary Chase’s 1944 tale of the havoc wreaked by Harvey, a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall imaginary – or is he? – rabbit.

The cast was comprised of students and faculty members, with the play’s leads, siblings Veta Louise Simmons and Elwood P. Dowd, played by Isabel Benjamin ’19 and Tom Robertshaw ’19, respectively. The comedy follows Veta’s attempts to commit her brother Elwood into a sanitarium for his seeming hallucinations of Harvey. Humor and outrage ensue as Dr. Lyman Sanderson, played by Caroline Fairweather ’20, makes the mistake of committing Veta in place of her brother. Further confusion arises as the reality of Harvey’s existence is brought into question.

Chase’s play is compelling, and its plot, while absurd at points, touches on poignant themes of gender roles, familial relationships and grief that seamlessly blend with its comedic dialogues. Not without note does Chase reference Sense and Sensibility and the work of Jane Austen, who wrote extensively and famously about women and social expectations. It was perhaps even more unnerving in today’s political context to bear witness to the part of Veta, whose word is undermined in the play, ultimately resulting in her forced committal to the sanitarium and subsequent violent disrobement for hydrotherapy.

The reading itself had the appeal of a live radio drama, with well-delivered dialogue complemented by darting eyes and fervent glances between the actors as they read their lines. While initially an odd composition of costume-less cast members sitting in plastic chairs as they performed, the reading developed as the night progressed. Its effect was similar to that of a book on tape, radiating a soporific warmth that was only interrupted by the coffee fumes from Tunnel City.

The play’s nontraditional presentation heightened its comedic edge; the invisible Harvey, whose spot was represented next to the actors by an empty chair with a fedora resting on its back, earned a few laughs, and there was a simple amusement offered as Professor of Theatre David Eppel delivered the lines of the haughty aunt Ethel Chauvenet. The absurdity and datedness of Veta’s dialogue (“Oh Myrtle, don’t be didactic. It’s not becoming in a young girl. Besides, men loathe it,” she responded after being questioned by her daughter Myrtle Mae Simmons, played by Maya Jasinka ’21) is highlighted when casually recited by Benjamin, unencumbered by period costume or heavy stage makeup.

The casual production was ultimately endearing, as missed lines lent themselves to laughs among the actors and audience, and stage directions mimed in chairs allowed for a histrionic flair. The simple setup enabled audience members to focus on the actors, whose delivery more than compensated for the lack of costume and stage design.

Benjamin and Robertshaw managed to present a convincing balance of resentment and trust between the two feuding siblings, while Fairweather, joined by Nicole Jones ’20 and Jack Scaletta ’18, comprised a comedic staff of aloof mid-century psychotherapists.

More than anything, the play broke the fourth wall in its production. As actors in street clothes unapologetically laughed along with the audience, the play expanded beyond the dozen plastic chairs lined up in the bookstore’s cafe, turning into an inclusive celebration of a remarkable script.

The Colleges Theatre Department delivered Mary Chases 1994 play, ‘Harvey,’ with casual intimacy. Photo courtesy of Irish American Magazine.